Attorney Sued for Malpractice in Adoption Scam

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Mar. 11, 2019 12:00 am   5 min read

Travis and Kristina Partin had the nursery ready and a name picked out for the baby they planned to adopt through Fayetteville attorney Vaughn-Michael Cordes.

The couple from Boston, Kentucky, paid Cordes nearly $30,000 in 2017 to assist with an adoption from a Marshallese woman, Jacklynn Aen of Rogers.

But it turned out that Aen was never pregnant.

“It wasn’t until the day before the due date that Mr. Cordes called them … and told them there is no baby,” said Joshua Bryant of Rogers, the couple’s attorney. “It was very devastating, and it’s still very difficult for them.”

The Partins filed a malpractice lawsuit in October against Cordes and the Cordes Law Firm Inc., a suit that provides a look inside one aspect of adoptions among the Marshallese community in northwest Arkansas. Adoptions involving natives of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean have garnered previous attention and were the subject of an April 2015 article in The New Republic headlined, “Do You Understand That Your Baby Goes Away and Never Comes Back?”

The Partins are seeking at least $1 million in damages. Aen also was named in the lawsuit.

In September, Aen pleaded guilty in Washington County Circuit Court to a criminal charge for defrauding a prospective adoptive parent. She was sentenced to 20 years of probation and ordered to pay nearly $15,000 in restitution.

Cordes, who handles Marshallese adoptions, also has had other clients who were victimized by a birth mother.

In August, Bing Domnick, 22, of Springdale pleaded guilty to defrauding a prospective adoptive parent and was sentenced to 120 days in jail and ordered to pay $21,563 in restitution to a couple who thought they were going to adopt Domnick’s baby. But she changed her mind and kept the child.

Cordes represented the couple and had put them in touch with Domnick and handled the payments to her, according to the probable cause report filed in Benton County Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, Bryant is lobbying for changes to the law concerning the adoption process when a licensed child placement agency isn’t used. He said Thursday that proposed legislation was being drafted by the Bureau of Legislative Research and he hoped to have it ready before the March 11 deadline to file bills in the Arkansas General Assembly.

The legislation “closes some of the gaps that we’ve got in Arkansas adoption laws that allow some of these things to happen,” Bryant said.

Little Regulation
In addition to licensed child placement agencies, a doctor or an attorney can handle the adoption process, Bryant said. But they face little regulation, he said.

Judges often don’t see those adoption cases until the child has been born and is in the arms of the adoptive parents in the courtroom.

“What we’re seeing happen a lot of times … is that some of the judges having to hear these adoptions are left to Monday-morning quarterback,” Bryant said.

It leaves the judges in a difficult position: They can either stop the adoption if they think something underhanded is going on, “or the judge can hold his or her nose and sign” the adoption papers, Bryant said.

He said the proposed legislation would include stricter controls on those adoptions handled only by doctors or lawyers, such as defining appropriate payments from the adoptive parents to the birth mother. The legislation would hold those attorneys responsible for the improper payments, and attorneys could have to repay money to an adoptive parent.

“We know the abuses are a lot wider and broader than just in the Marshallese community, but that’s certainly where it’s most visible now,” Bryant said.

Bryant said last week that he is negotiating a settlement with Cordes. “We’ll just have to see if we can get that worked out,” he said.

Cordes declined to comment.

Lawyer Files Bankruptcy
Cordes filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganization in November after the Partins filed their suit. Cordes listed potentially $1.9 million in debts. He reported $580,000 in assets.

One of the larger debts listed is to the IRS for $113,700 for income tax owed between 2013 and 2017. He also owes $211,238 for student loan debt on an account opened in February 1997.

On his LinkedIn profile, Cordes said he opened his firm in 2006. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 27, 2018, he reported an income of $108,000. In 2017, his income was $285,500.

The LinkedIn profile said his firm was a small, family-oriented law firm focusing on bankruptcy, adoption, family law and general law practice.

The Partins first contacted Cordes in June 2017 for help finding a baby to adopt, according to their lawsuit. Cordes arranged for a video conference call between Aen and a translator, Justin Aine of Washington County, who has worked on 150 adoptions.

The Partins and Aen agreed to the adoption, and the couple sent a cashier’s check for $29,000 to Cordes. Cordes was to receive $7,000 for attorney’s fees and Aen was to be paid $13,500 for the child, who was supposed to be delivered in November 2017. The remaining money would go for expenses such as prenatal care and a private ultrasound and $3,300 for a translator or liaison fee.

The same day the Partins sent a check to Cordes, Aen texted the couple and asked for $300 to turn on the water at her home and for food, according to the suit.

The couple tried to contact Cordes, but couldn’t reach him. They decided to send the money.

Aen continued to ask for money from the couple. Cordes told the couple that he would credit them and refund their money. “This is just part of the Marshallese experience,” the lawsuit said he told the couple.

As the months passed, the Partins began to get an “uneasy feeling” from Aen and Aine about the adoption, the suit said.

Cordes sought to reassure the couple. He said Aen had given birth and placed three previous children up for adoption with Cordes, so “he had no reason to doubt her truthfulness,” the lawsuit said.

On Nov. 17, 2017, the Partins were driving back to Kentucky when Cordes called and said Aen had been lying the entire time. She wasn’t pregnant.

The Partins allege that Cordes suggested that there was a pregnant woman in the Marshall Islands that was going to deliver a boy in December 2017 and he “could fly in for an adoption,” which is against the law, the lawsuit said. Cordes, in his court filing, denied making the offer.

The Partins said in the lawsuit that an attorney with “reasonable skill and diligence” would have verified that a woman placing a child up for adoption was actually pregnant.

They also alleged that Cordes failed to keep them apprised of the case.

The couple suffered emotional distress “in that the excitement and joy of having a child turned into extreme sadness, depression, and anger when notified that they had been defrauded,” the lawsuit said.

Cordes, who was representing himself in the lawsuit, denied the allegations of wrongdoing in his court files.

He said he provided the Partins “with loyalty, fair dealings, candor, honesty, and care.”



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